December 29, 2008
Mirror Neurons Activate When Watching Others Do Or Feel

We model what others are doing or feeling by activation of the same neurons as we activate when doing or feeling the same thing for ourselves.

The old adage that we can only learn how to do something by trying it ourselves may have to be revised in the light of recent discoveries in neuroscience. It turns out that humans, primates, some birds, and possibly other higher animals have mirror neurons that fire in the same pattern whether performing or just observing a task. These mirror neurons clearly play an important role in learning motor tasks involving hand eye coordination, and possibly also acquisition of language skills, as well as being required for social skills, but the exact processes involved are only just being discovered. In particular the relationship between mirror neural networks and social cognitive tasks has been unclear, and greater knowledge of it could shed light on problems such as autism that may arise when this process goes wrong.

It could be that some on the autistic spectrum (high functioning autistics and Aspergers) are able to do more original mental work because they spend less of their mental resources activating neurons to mirror what others are feeling and doing.

Mirror neurons fire not only when watching someone else perform a task but also when watching someone else experience an emotion.

Just as the same mirror neurons fire when observing and doing certain tasks, so other mirror neurons may be triggered both when experiencing a particularly emotion and when observing someone else with that emotion. At the ESF conference it emerged that mirror neurons involved in emotion resided in both the insula and cingulate cortexes, two regions of the brain known to play roles in emotions and feelings. However until recently the mechanisms of interaction between these two had been largely unknown. "In the case of emotions, we can say that there is a good deal of overlap between areas from the insula and cingulate cortexes," said Viale. "These areas become active both when individuals feel an emotion (e.g. disgust) and also when they watch someone else feeling that emotion."

Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s by an Italian group led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, which placed electrodes in the inferior frontal cortex of macaque monkeys' brains to study neurons dedicated to control of hand movement. This led to the surprising observation that some of the neurons responded in the same way when monkeys saw a person pick up a piece of food as when they were doing it themselves. This introduced the principle of the mirror neuron as a neuron capable of being triggered by imitation, as a mechanism both for learning and empathising in social situations.

While mirror neutrons cannot be observed directly in humans because electrodes cannot be inserted into their brains, the action has been inferred by imaging of the whole brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This showed patterns of brain activity consistent with the firing of motor neurons.

More recently motor neurons have also been discovered in birds.

Modest proposal: Rate a movie by having people watch it and measure their emotional responses with fMRI scanners. A movie that activates a lot of mirror neurons might be successful. However, the feeling of being disgusted or angry with the movie needs to be separated from feelings of empathy for characters in the movie.

What I wonder: do any psychopaths have a diminished ability to feel emotions that mirror the emotions that others feel? Could one detect psychopaths by showing test subjects tragic and painful pictures and then see if their mirror neurons get activated?

Also, could intelligence agencies discover moles by showing them images of enemy countries and their own country and see if they more mirror neuron activation for happiness or friendliness from enemy country ideological images and less from their own?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 December 29 03:20 PM  Brain Evolution

Jun said at December 30, 2008 6:34 PM:

Dunno about psychopaths, but a-typical mirror neuron functioning has been suggested as a problem in people on the autistic spectrum:

Guillaume Theoret said at January 3, 2009 3:47 PM:

Didn't they already know this?

I read somewhere that divers typically imagine themselves successfully doing a complicated jump over and over and watching videos of others doing it if it's not a new jump before trying it. When they first try it after so much neural re-enforcement they can often succeed on the first try.

Hasn't watching others do something always re-enforced our mental ability to do it?

woccam said at January 12, 2009 6:25 PM:

Perhaps this could provide a missing part of the justification for universal human rights

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